November 15, 2023

Overcoming Anonymous Donor Challenges: Is Your Backdoor Light Out?

We toured the Salvation Army shelter during one of my city’s Leadership classes. Besides seeing the complex and hearing the facts, our guide shared stories of professionals—like us—who needed the shelter.

Her goodbye was, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

Leaving the light on for guests is a sign of welcome. Most nonprofits put out the welcome mat and keep the front door lights on for prospective donors. 

Your existing work in the community has been awe-inspiring, and I hope this donation can help further the population you serve.

Attached to a surprise donation of $154,000

Yet, some individuals and institutions avoid these signals. Some—including most mega-gift donors—seek alternatives to your front doors. (Click for more about donors who avoid development.)

How do you work with these donors? Is it worth it? This post explores five hurdles to serving unsolicited donors and whether it is worth it. The goal? To help nonprofit CEOs like you quickly gather the resources you need so you have more time to lead.

Let’s begin with the challenges.

1. Mindset 

Challenge one is dropping your belief that luck is the root of anonymous gifts. Removing luck refutes nonprofit sector “wisdom” that sees all unsolicited contributions as chance occurrences.

Logic and research into unsolicited major gifts point to luck being only one piece of the puzzle. The fact that funded groups tend to “have their act together” indicates the necessity and wisdom of taking concrete actions to welcome people considering your work.

2. What’s Important?  

To serve anonymous donors, you must imagine their journeys “shopping for nonprofits.”

Here are two journey examples.

For some donors, it begins with your reputation,  gets confirmed by the results you create, and finally, what you say about yourself. Think Habitat for Humanity and Nature Conservancy on the national level.

For others, it’s a cool idea (especially for newish nonprofits), plus your results and the media you produce. Think: RIP Medical DebtPolicy Center for Maternal Mental Health, and All Our Kin.

Since most nonprofit work focuses on finding donors, shifting to how to get picked requires you to consider your work holistically, build your reputation, and amplify what makes your approach special.

Knowing what’s essential is impossible in advance, of course. However, educated guesses based on known gifts are possible. To help you make those guesses, here’s a list from our service, Quick Impression, that sheds light on some essential musts.

3. Objectivity

The third challenge in serving unsolicited donors is stepping outside your bubble and seeking to be impartial.

Stepping outside your work challenges leaders because you’re busy. Plus, being objective is hard. (To get realistic about how hard it is to be objective, pick a bias test on a topic where you believe you are bias-free.) 

Finally, people keep telling you you’re great, and accepting their words is tempting.

Honest evaluation is rare and valuable

4. How You Are Really Doing?

From this place of objectivity, you must admit that even though you do as good or better (most likely!) work than your competitors and, in many places, excel—in some areas, they stand out.

They may look better or get better press coverage. Maybe it’s their board’s engagement, staff development, a more explicit strategy, or all of the above.

 Since your work is as good or better than theirs, It’s unfair, but it’s not going away—without action.

The other nonprofit does a gala that raises $250,000, and everyone confuses us with them! We’ve fought this for years.

An anonymous nonprofit CEO

 Facing the facts about your current situation and creating a plan to surpass or match your competitors with your unique approach is demanding. Fortunately, it’s almost the last challenge. 

5. Do the Work

Finally, you must use the plan and remove some, if not all, of the weaknesses you discover.

You might need to Marie Kondo your programs, events, or priorities. Or, you may be—like me and hard-pressed—to think of anything less exciting than redoing your website again—but the experts recommend it every three to four years. So you do it.

And, because most nonprofits have challenges that hinder them, this challenge might trigger despair. That’s because these leaders know they are stuck. They lack confidence about how to move forward on these sticky challenges. (My expertise is guiding nonprofit CEOs to solve board, strategy, and resource challenges. Book a free discovery call.)

Here’s something important to remember: Almost always, part of the work will involve dealing with your board’s expectations. Even hinting about unsolicited contributions will invite board speculation. And we’ve had bad experiences when board members get behind get-rich-quick-schemes that distract them from ensuring the nonprofit has adequate funds. 

Doing the work that needs doing, plus managing expectations, is the final roadblock to master serving anonymous donors successfully. So, those are the five challenges that lead to answers to the question you probably have about the value of anonymous donors.

But Are Anonymous Donors Worth It? 

Five challenges are a lot. You have plenty to do with people who want relationships, so why bother? 

First, there is the money. 

Firm statistics don’t exist on how much over-the-threshold donors give. But think about what you know about mega gifts and surprise bequests. Also, consider the contributions that arrive over the threshold from unexpected sources in your nonprofit. You’ll probably agree that we’re talking about 10 percent (or more) per year for the sector.*

Besides the money, what else is valuable?

Seeking more anonymous gifts might be the incentive you need to fix the stuff that keeps your nonprofit from reaching its potential and getting recognized for its work. 

Karen Eber Davis

Nagging Problems

When you house shop, the buyer immediately sees the dated floor the homeowner’s never fixed. Like with houses, many nonprofit problems get buried on the to-do list.

Getting things fixed for anonymous donors removes tasks you’ve wanted to do forever. You know what’s on your to-do list, perhaps refining your mission, board recruitment, or staff benefits. It might mean clarifying your value so you can stand apart from your competitors.

Keeping the backdoor light on for anonymous donors ultimately leads to a more effective, attractive, and competitive nonprofit and more donors. Leaving the backdoor light on illuminates all your work.

Are your backdoor lights on? How do you ensure your nonprofit’s backdoor lights burn bright? Please share your comments below.

What’s Next

  • Work with me. I partner with nonprofits like yours to assess their fundraising attractiveness for both Quick Impressions and Closer Looks. Take a moment to schedule your free session.
  • *Grow the sector’s knowledge. Calculate your surprise gifts for the last year and email the percentage they represent of your overall revenue.
  • Get a trusted advisor to solve the staff or board challenges stuck in your backpack and solve your board, strategy, and revenue challenges.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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